Situated on the border of the provinces of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia is the small, isolated HeLanShan (Alashan) range of mountains. The semi-desert area immediately to the west is one of few places to see one of Asia’s least-known birds – the Mongolian or Kozlov’s Accentor (Prunella kozlowi, 贺兰山岩鹨) . Not much to look at, the Mongolian Accentor is unlikely to win any beauty contests and its low density in the vast habitat makes it a challenge to find. However, when one combines the Accentor with another of the area’s specialities, the stunning Alashan (Przevalski’s) Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲), a winter visit HeLanShan can be very rewarding.
Alashan Redstart breeds in the He Lan Shan Mountains and, in winter, most of them descend to the foothills and even the local town parks, making this species more accessible. Of course, it was only five years ago that a pair of these beautiful redstarts made it to Beijing. Our hopes of them being annual visitors to the capital so far remain unfulfilled. Hence the lure of the small town of Alxa in sub-zero temperatures.
We hired local guide, 王志芳 (Wang Zhifang) who was the first to ‘rediscover’ the wintering grounds of Mongolian Accentor back in 2009, many years after specimens were taken from the area.
Ms Wang first took us to a private site where we enjoyed two male Alashan Redstarts alongside Red-billed Chough, Plain Laughingthrush, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown and Siberian Accentors, Red-throated Thrush, Beijing Babbler, Hawfinch and Godlewski’s Bunting. The redstarts appeared to have a routine involving eating, drinking and singing (not dissimilar to many Beijingers on a Saturday night). In the arid semi-desert habitat, the berries they were feeding on were very dry, hence the need for regular forays to the edge of the stream, where the direct sun caused small amounts of ice to melt. Often, the redstarts would pause above the stream, calling frequently, before dropping down to drink. After drinking, they would often fly up to a perch and begin a weak, barely audible, song (subsong?), sometimes for several minutes at a time.
It was a joy to spend time with these birds and I recorded as much video and audio as I could.
Here is an audio recording of the calls and (sub) song:
In the afternoon we headed to a town park where we enjoyed another male Alashan Redstart as well as 85+ Red-throated Thrushes with just 2 Naumann’s Thrushes and 3 Black-throated Thrushes mixed in. A male Chaffinch was a nice addition the day.
One of the thrushes appeared to be an intergrade between Red-throated and Black-throated, sporting reddish feather around the face and throat and much darker, blackish feathering around the mid- to lower chest. This bird also had less rufous in the tail compared with a typical Red-throated. Comments welcome!
On day two we focused on Mongolian Accentor and it wasn’t long before we saw our first one at a site close to the town.
This bird is poorly known with a limited distribution in Mongolia and, in winter, it’s regular in small numbers in Inner Mongolia near the HeLanShan mountains. This individual spent most of its time feeding on the ground close to thick cover.. and its favourite food appeared to be the seeds of this thistle-like plant. I’d love to identify the plant so if anyone knows the name, please let me know!
After enjoying prolonged views of the Accentor, we spent the remainder of the time checking out nearby sites for Mongolian Ground Jay. We were fortunate to find two within a few kilometres of the town and found another site holding at least six more Mongolian Accentors before heading back to the airport for the return to Beijing, passing an original mud section of the Great Wall on the way.
All in all, an enjoyable weekend in a fascinating part of China.
For anyone interested in visiting, the local guide, Ms Wang Zhifang, can be contacted on WeChat (“alscw2016”) or on +86 18604836422.